We are punching the earth’s systems, but how does Mother Nature respond to the punches? She has been standing and taking punch after punch, but change is critical. This was the warning given by sustainability expert Johan Rockström during his CIGI Signature Lecture “Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries.”
Drawing on his most recent research, Rockström outlined a scientific update on the exceptional risk facing humanity. We have become our own epoch, he explained, we have entered the Anthropocene. The defining element of our epoch is that humanity has become the largest force of change to the planet and its systems.
We have transitioned from a small world on a big planet to the opposite. Our big world on a small planet has caused serious harm to many of our most important environmental systems. This damage comes from a development pattern that sees economic growth at the expense of natural and human capital. We have reached a point in which our planet can no loner sustain the pressure these developmental patterns have placed on it. As Rockström stated, the planet is “sending invoices back to the economy.”
Rockström is the leading scientist in the development of the Planetary Boundaries Framework, a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Rockström notes, we have now passed the danger zone of four of the nine boundaries – land system change, climate change, biosphere integrity and biogeochemical flows – And we are heading toward human induced disaster.
The result, Rockström argues is the collision of “two giants”. The first giant is the recognition that with the amount of pressure we are putting on the planet the response will not be incremental or predictable. The second giant is the fact that we will have 10 billion people living on this planet by 2050. We have the chance to eradicate poverty by 2030.
While this may seem like a doomsday warning, Rockström argues it is the opposite. He says we have an opportunity, a chance for transition, and that “we are the first generation to know there is no excuse for inaction.” To complete this transition we must fundamentally change the way we view development and economic growth, and move to a new system where economy serves society and operates within the environment.
Rockström explains it is possible to move back into a safe operating space. We don’t have to stop economic growth but rather alter the systems so this growth remains in a safe zone. We can do this by transitioning to carbon free and fossil free energy systems and by transitioning to sustainable food systems.
Abundance and prosperity within boundaries is possible through one important mechanism: innovation. But as Rockström warns, we are running out of time.