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Planetary Thresholds and Why Pro-Environment Discourse is Necessary

With Adam Smith’s theory of individuals working towards self-interest, hence assuming perfect competition being the status quo, the future painted through an extrapolated rendering of The Tragedy of Commons will showcase a damaged, depleted, Earth, where all planetary thresholds as Rockström enlists are crossed.

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Since the publishing of ‘Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson in 1968, a ground-breaking study in toxicology, ecology and epidemiology to show the negative impact of the Anthropocene stage of humanity (where we are the most dominant and negatively impacting factors towards the natural world), the discourse regarding the concept of ‘sustainable development’ has evolved significantly. While the interconnections between the environment, the economy and social well-being had already surfaced since the book, with many international conferences aimed towards combating climate change and various community engagement programs aimed towards protecting the environment, the goals of sustainable development have often been approached from single dimensional perspectives. Very often the goals have been defined clearly, but not the means to achieve them, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. Since the publishing of the book, there has been considerable action taken to move towards a ‘safe and just space for humanity’ and the debate about what exactly constitutes as Sustainable Development has also evolved considerably.

After public attention towards climate change increased after Former Vice President Al Gore released ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it is Johan Rockstrom’s highly influential article in 2009 called ‘A safe operating space for humanity’ which has had a substantial influence on the discourse of sustainable development, as well as my narrative. Rockstrom and his colleagues enlist nine ‘planetary thresholds’ which are nine ecological balances, whose resilience and ‘carrying capacity’ should not be tampered with. The illustration for these boundaries and their current status is as follows-


These quantified ‘planetary boundaries’ or ‘biophysical thresholds’ along with the proposed boundary, current level and pre-industrial level are given below

With humanity and the planet Earth having passed the Holocene stage, a stage where all ecological systems and the Earth’s regulatory capacity provided conducive conditions for uninterrupted human development (such as availability of freshwater, regular temperatures, biogeochemical flows etc.), we are now at a stage called Anthropocene, where the main catalyst for global environmental change is human activities. When we consider the nine planetary thresholds, the three thresholds which have already been crossed (climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen cycle), we can imagine an extrapolated rendering of the “tragedy of commons” as described by Hardin, where humanity’s unperturbed carelessness with production and consumption will exhaust an already depleted planet Earth, which is the ‘commons’ in this case. The interaction between these thresholds is extremely complex and the effect of crossing these thresholds though extremely difficult to predict, will naturally have reverberating effects on the entire ecosystem. As Rockstrom puts it, “Many subsystems of the Earth react in a nonlinear, often abrupt way, and are particularly sensitive around threshold levels of certain key variables. If these thresholds are crossed, then important subsystems, such as the monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences for humans”

It is important to recognize the interlinkages between the thresholds, especially given the delicate balance upon which their resilience rests. From a single-dimensional perspective, or from the lens of a single discipline, one cannot truly grasp the complex dynamics which underline the interaction between human interactions and climate change or biodiversity loss. Even while Rockstrom and his colleagues came up with ways of determining indicators for different thresholds, lack of knowledge or academic dispersion limited their own understanding of how accurate the indicators are, calling for greater scientific research from various disciplines to determine boundaries with greater certainty.

As for the tight coupling between the planetary boundaries, it is integral to note that crossing one threshold might transgress into the resilience of other thresholds and subsystems. As Rockstrom notes, “significant land-use changes in the Amazon could influence water resources as far away as Tibet”.

Using an analogy from economics to explain the urgency of pro-environment thinking, if we think of the market as planet earth, and the supply is the abundance of natural resources available, then we must understand that not only is this supply limited by the environmental ceiling or planetary threshold, but also that this isn’t a laissez faire economy of free market forces which balance each other out when we consider the environment. There is no “invisible hand”. While the invisible hand forms the backdrop of the assumptions that a society functions well and the markets balance out if individuals pursue their self-interest, it has largely been criticized, and in a narrative using planet Earth as a metaphor, the invisible hand can be thought of as our collective morality, an unquantifiable, subjective concept. In “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Hardin gives us an extremely grim picture of the future-inevitability of the overuse and exploitation of a common natural resource, which we can take to be planet Earth (an overgrazed field when all planetary thresholds are crossed). With Adam Smith’s theory of individuals working towards self-interest, hence assuming perfect competition being the status quo, the future painted through an extrapolated rendering of The Tragedy of Commons will showcase a damaged, depleted, Earth, where all planetary thresholds as Rockström enlists are crossed. The carrying capacity of the one public common good given to us will be tested and tampered with, and the ecosystem resilience forever destroyed. The “invisible hand” does not come to the rescue of an already over-exploited Earth, where the Anthropocene has propelled humanity down a slippery slope of environmental degradation and resource exhaustiveness. We have therefore come at an important crux in our time where important choices regarding economic growth and environmental sustainability have to be made on a grass-root and policy level on a global scale, which will seal the fate of our planet.

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