Questioning Planetary Boundaries

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger over at The Breakthrough Institute made their fame, in part, by declaring the Death of Environmentalism back in 2005. A death I’ve often thought Bryan G. Norton gave a nice rebuttal to, and very compelling recovery of in his book, Sustainability: a philosophy of adaptive ecosystem management.

In a new report, they question the idea that planetary boundaries can be defined in the ways currently circulating in the literature on global environmental governance. The original idea of planetary boundaries was produced in 2009 in two key papers, one in Nature and the other in Ecology and Society. There were originally nine planetary boundaries in total: land-use change, biodiversity loss, the nitrogen, phosphorous and freshwater cycles, respectively, ocean acidification, climate change, ozone depletion in the stratosphere, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger, together with Linus Blomqvist, argue that, in fact, only three of those systems have non-arbitrary boundaries. Meaning that there are three systems – climate, phosphorous and ozone depletion – that, if pushed beyond their boundaries, will reach tipping points beyond which ecological processes will fundamentally change. The report claims that most of the remaining ‘planetary boundaries’ do not have global tipping points and operate independently from global scale processes. These are claimed to be ‘local’ or ‘regional’.

You can read the summary or download the entire report here. It came out in June 2012 so it will be interesting to see what uptake it gets, if any, after summer.


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