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Recklessness defined: breaking 6 of 9 planetary boundaries of safety

Posted on 20 July 2022 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Jeff Masters

Picture this …

“If you’re driving on the highway and miss your exit, you don’t step on it and keep going all the way to the ocean. You slow down and take the next exit. We’ve passed some limits noted by scientists to avoid irreversible damage to the climate, but there is still time to slow down and limit how much we suffer.”

– Susan Joy Hassol, head of the nonprofit Climate, addressing a Communications Network 2018 conference

… and now, setting the stage, imagine this …

The trouble started at mile marker 1985. That’s when the air conditioning on your Lamborghini model RCP 8.5 megabus crapped out and the master engine fault light blinked on, a virulent red exclamation mark blazing with the dire threat of serious engine harm. You told the passengers about the problem. Ignoring the protests of a few loud-mouthed first-class passengers, you did the responsible thing and took the next exit off the expressway and pulled into a service station.

The mechanic said it was a good thing that you stopped. Your engine had overheated and melted multiple hoses, including the one circulating coolant from your air conditioning system. Despite the protests of a few obnoxious and vocal first-class passengers complaining that it would be too expensive to fix and that you should just drive on, you went ahead and agreed to the repair. While you waited, the mechanic advised you to replace your balding tires, their threads starting to show, and get a brake job, the pads dangerously worn. The road conditions ahead are more dangerous, he advised, and with forecasts of big storms moving in. He then gave you the bill, which surprisingly turned out to be 10 times less than the panicked first-class passengers claimed it would be. Despite this, they raised a big ruckus about the cost of fixing the tires and brakes, so you agreed to do only the engine fix.

You hit the road again, feeling the need for speed. Soon you find yourself cruising at 60 mph down a mountain road with blind curves and dangerous drop-offs with no guard rail. But as you whiz past mile marker 1988, you’re feeling worn out after a late night and from all the stress of the drive.

Your eyes feel droopy, and you shut them, just for a second. Mistake! Awakened by your own snoring, you suddenly recall one of your favorite brief Homer Simpson skits. You come to and find two wheels on the shoulder of the road as you careen at 70 MPH dragging a section of garden fencing post behind you.

Yet, still too fast, you swerve and avoid multiple bunnies, beavers, dodos, and frogs, which blunder in the way of your churning tires. Dang. It doesn’t help that when you pump your brakes, you hear the grinding of metal on metal, since you neglected to get that brake job the mechanic told you to get. It’s probably just as well, though, since any sudden maneuver might lead to a wipeout because of your balding tires. But shoot, that guy that you overheard last year at the Buck Lake campground said that when you start seeing the threads on your tires, you’ve still got about 3,000 miles left on them, and you’re determined to get your full money’s worth.

It’s starting to get dark now, and you flick on the headlights so that you can see a steep curve ahead. Only one headlight comes on. You smack your head. That’s right! You meant to change the burned-out bulb, but the replacement bulb is still in the glove box. Oh well. There’s still enough light to see the road, even though you forgot your glasses, and the world looks pretty blurry. No matter. You’ve invincible. You look at your unfastened seat belt. Nah. Seat belts are for wimps. Passing mile marker 2000, you gas it some more, hitting 80 mph.

Hmm, it’s getting even darker now, and there’s a huge billowing cumulonimbus cloud ahead with purplish-white lightning forking out of it. The sky has taken on an ominous green hue. Maybe if you speed up you can outrun the storm! You floor the accelerator, and skid dangerously at 90 mph around a hairpin turn, one wheel inches from a steep drop-off that plunges down over 1,000 feet. Whew! Made it. But dang, the road is taking you right into the storm. Torrential rains hammer down, accompanied by massive hailstones the size of baseballs, which shatter all of your windows. Hmm. Didn’t see that coming! The weather forecast said to expect just golf ball-sized hail.

Passing mile marker 2005, there are some blue and red flashing lights in your rearview mirror, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a cop or not, since the rear window is smashed. You figure it’s probably a snowplow working to clear all the hail off the road, which is getting very slippery now. Hmm, there are bullets whistling by the bus now, so it appears that maybe the passengers in back who are screaming about the Gaia Police are right, and they’re shooting at you now. Snowplows can’t drive at 90 mph, anyway, can they? No matter. You’ve got body armor on, though some of the poor passengers in your back seat don’t have money to afford body armor, and they’re getting shot up. You have more important things to worry about, since your cell phone is chirping. You’re expecting an important text message from your cannabis shop about that order of edibles you wanted. So, you whip out your phone and start texting. It’s getting very dark now, as you pass mile marker 2022, so you figure you better gas it to 100 mph while you can still see, like the first-class passengers are clamoring for. Or maybe you should do the responsible thing, like you did back at mile marker 1985, and take the next exit and get some repairs done? Hmm.

Planetary boundaries graphicFigure 1. The nine planetary boundaries beyond which there is a risk of destabilization of the Earth system that would threaten human societal development, April 2022 version. Humanity had crossed out of the green “safe” space across six out of nine boundaries, and was close to crossing one other boundary (ocean acidification). (Image credit: Stockholm Resilience Institute; plot annotated for clarification)

Humanity is pushing boundaries of our finite Earth in dangerous ways

When we drive a vehicle at high speed, disaster is always a split second away. An accident can occur when crossing any one of at least nine boundaries of safe operation – the engine, tires, brakes, lights, and seat belts must be functioning properly, the driver must be sober and not distracted, and the vehicle must be operated at a safe speed and not in adverse weather conditions. That careless driver in our fictional story clearly is breaking or pushing the limits of eight of nine of these boundaries.

Yet the above story is an apt analogy of the recklessness of the path humanity is pursuing as we rush toward the future – we are breaking multiple planetary boundaries of safe living on the planet that sustains us. The authors of a landmark 2015 study led by scientists with the Stockholm Resilience Institute, SRI, Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet, wrote of a “planetary boundaries” concept detailing nine different environmental limits to human impact on planetary ecosystems which, if crossed, could result in destabilization of the Earth system and thereby threaten human societal development.

As of 2021, according to SRI, we had already gone beyond the safe limit for five of these planetary boundaries:

• climate change;
• biogeochemical flows (i.e., excessive phosphorus and nitrogen pollution from fertilizer use);
• biosphere integrity (e.g., extinction rate and loss of insect pollination);
• land-system change (e.g., deforestation);
• and novel entities (e.g., pollution from plastics, heavy metals, and what are commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”).

In an April 2022 update, SRI found that a portion of a sixth planetary boundary – fresh water use – had also been crossed. In addition, in a June 2021 interview with the journal Globalizations, Dr. Will Stefan of SRI said that a seventh planetary boundary had also likely been crossed: ocean acidification (one that has been theorized as a key contributor to previous mass extinction events in geologic history). One other boundary has been too uncertain to judge: atmospheric aerosols from fine particle pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion. Yet, we are clearly pushing this boundary too, when considering that air pollution from burning fossil fuels has been blamed for 8.8 million deaths worldwide per year.

Hope for the future: from danger zone to safe zone for one boundary

The only planetary boundary of the nine that is currently agreed to be in the green “safe” zone is the one for stratospheric ozone depletion. As the opening story suggests, we crossed into the danger zone past this boundary in 1985: That’s when scientists discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, and warned that a planetary catastrophe might well ensue unless strong global action were taken. Despite industry’s warnings of severe economic harm, the nations of the world at last banded together to impose strict controls on the emissions of ozone-destroying CFCs. The fix was done at far lower cost than industry had warned of, and stratospheric ozone depletion has now receded into the green “safe” zone.

This tremendous success story proves that doom from our having crossed multiple planetary boundaries is not a certainty. Humanity can choose to do the responsible thing and stop speeding down the highway to the future while measuring progress primarily in economic terms. While following that course has led to remarkable improvements in human well-being – like the marked decrease in extreme poverty in recent decades (Figure 2 below) – that progress has come at a very steep cost. Much of the wealth we have achieved is borrowed wealth, borrowed from future generations.

World population living in extreme povertyFigure 2. The number of people in extreme poverty peaked from 1981-1993, and has fallen significantly since, except for a bump in 2020-2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: Our World in Data; figure modified for 2016-2021 using the nowcast of extreme poverty from

Mother Earth has given us nine planetary credit cards to assist in our development. We’ve charged six of those nine credit cards to the hilt, and are pushing the credit limit on two others. We’ve used the oceans, land, and atmosphere as dumping grounds for our wastes, pumped Earth’s precious groundwater reserves to exhaustion, depleted her soils, razed her forests, and exterminated countless species. We are desperately trying to borrow more from Mother Earth, but there is precious little credit available.

It’s payback time, and Mother Nature is a very unforgiving lender. She abides by the laws of physics, and defaulting on just one of the loans we’ve taken out could be catastrophic. To avoid crashing civilization, we must take the next exit ramp – the one for the Paris Agreement – and work hard to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius, by reducing carbon emissions through a rapid transition to a clean energy economy.

What is needed is a global effort similar to the proposed EU “Nature Restoration Law”, which would set legally binding targets and provide over $100 billion for nature restoration in agriculture, forests, oceans and urban areas, as reported by EurActiv. The aim of the proposal is to restore degraded ecosystems, “in particular those with the most potential to remove and store carbon, and to reduce the impact of natural disasters linked to global warming”. If economic development is done with renewable energy, forest protection, regenerative agriculture, sustainable groundwater pumping, and the like, it can increase jobs, build a healthier economy and world, and give us more of what we really care about: time to experience nature, engage in creative endeavors, and be with family and friends.

Susan Joy Hassol (@ClimateComms) and Bob Henson contributed to this post.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Well said. In 1985 this might have been ignored as ad hominen material. In 1975, when I managed a major Swedish environmental deteioration project, showing why we are incapable of managing phenomena like climate change, this story of the human bus would have been laughed at. In 1979, when the results of that project were presented to OECD, a very angry Director of the US EPA called it a hoax. Now that climate change is essentially outside management, we see this sotry as "interesting."  Humans?

    A 2019 book, "Too Early, Too Late, Now what?" republishes the 1979 work and is "interesting."  A 2022 clarification of the thesis urgency was seen as a "non-book" by Amazon and sold in candles, so you could morn as you read. After dessent by book buyers it was moved to the T-shirt section, where harsh depression is placed by youth up front. 

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  2. I agree totally in the dangerous way we 'drive' right now. However, at the same time, to me the metaphorical story misses the point and especially in its post-script talking about the 'successes'. To me (and others) is the extreme poverty graph based on a false narrative that instead, arguably, shows how more self-sustained (often productive small local farmers) been made to consumers of goods in a global marked driven economy that make the same person living a much more 'poor life' in the outskirts of global south’s megacities. Having their own small farm didn’t require money to live a decent life, while you with even 10 USD/day become much more vulnerably and miserably if you need to buy everything you need (in spite of statistics claiming the opposite). I recommend Jason Hickel’s book “The Divide” (2017), and especially its second chapter, for those interesting in data and discussions underpinning this alternative explanation. I’m not very sure about the details re the ozone hole, but I suspect that that challenge rather became a market opportunity, than something that question the kind of system and way of ‘driving’ we have today?

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  3. Hedeholt @2,

    I tend to agree that ‘developed measures of poverty and its reduction’ (said that way for a good reason), are not based on a fuller understanding of what is going on. The Sustainable Development Goals do a decent job of presenting the required corrections of what has developed. And limiting global warming impacts makes it easier to achieve and improve on the SDGs.

    Indeed, independent farming families can incorrectly be counted as ‘living in poverty’ if they do not appear to participate in economic activity. And they can be harmed by having global trade reduce their ability to benefit from selling their produce in their local markets. But in many cases their lives can be at unnecessary risk due to many things including:

    • a lack of sustainable access to food and water (lack of assistance in times of need)
    • a lack of health care
    • a lack of education (including not learning how to farm more sustainably)

    Properly discovering who needs help to sustainably improve their lives is challenging. Many people living in rain forests only need to have the negative impacts on their environment ‘by others’ stopped. They only need ‘assistance’ if the harm done to their environment will not be stopped.

    That is a way to understand many developed problems. ‘An individual or collective portion of humanity’ develops activity that is beneficial (profitable) for them or their group (sub-set of humanity), but is understandably detrimental to other life (including, but not restricted to, future generations of humanity). And that group mislead themselves and others into believing that their actions are ‘not unacceptably harmful’ or that their harmful unsustainable activity benefits other humans. They try to claim that the broader benefits of their harmful profitable pursuits include reduced poverty levels. But they do not rigorously investigate their claimed benefits to ensure that the improvements are valid and sustainable.

    That understanding applies to the Ozone case (and climate impacts and so much more):

    • Some humans developed ways of personally benefiting that were damaging the ozone layer.
    • The ones benefiting did not investigate if what they were doing was harmful.
    • Eventually, people external to the systems of pursuit of benefit discovered that harm was being done and how it was being done.
    • The marketplace competition for ‘more perceptions of improvement’ failed to respond to becoming aware that the developed popular and profitable activities were harmful.
    • Even learning that the damage done to the ozone layer was going to be harmful to the ones benefiting from the damage done did not result in effective marketplace corrections.
    • It took some time, but eventually global leadership powers agreed to actions that would collectively reduce the harm done. But even their agreement allowed harm to continue to be done. Each nation’s leadership was allowed to decide how rapidly they would stop the harmful activities.

    The Climate Impact story goes beyond the story regarding Ozone impacts.

    An added step in the climate impact story is the massive continuing efforts by ‘beneficiaries of fossil fuel use’ to raise doubts about the need to rapidly stop the harmful activity, efforts to delay correction of what has developed. And one of their most twisted misleading marketing efforts is claiming that reducing fossil fuel use will harm the poorest.

    The only people who can really be excused for attempting to benefit more from fossil fuel use today are the people who are living less than basic decent lives (including the desperately poor in the supposedly more advanced nations). The richest can afford to reduce their pursuit of fossil fuel benefits (they could have afforded it 30 years ago). And the richest should be helping the poorest improve their lives with minimum harm done, with minimum pursuit of benefit from fossil fuel use, even if that causes the richest to lose some degree of their ‘developed perceptions of superiority’.

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  4. The analogy of the dangerous bus is good. But a Structure analogy may be better, though far less amenable to engaging and colourful story-telling.

    An important point is the unsustainability of life on this planet if any of the identified safe limits (boundaries) are exceeded. A related understanding is that it is likely that additional Boundaries will be identified (the ‘Novel Entities’ category is for newly identified boundaries). And the competition for popularity and profit has proven it is very unlikely to investigate and limit the harm done by its developments.

    The Structure analogy would be something like this:

    • This amazing planet is the only structure/system available to humans that is certain to be able to support life that humans can be a sustainable part of.
    • An environment developed that has sustained a diversity of life for millennia. Life evolved in ways that were sustainable parts of the developed evolving structure/system.
    • Like any physical structure (building), parts of the global life support structure can be degraded. What is important to the future of life is that ‘critically important aspects of the structure are not impacted  beyond the safe limits (degraded or over-loaded)'. The Planetary Boundaries are critically important structure aspects. In Structure design they would be like the elements of the Primary Structure System. If part of the primary system fails the entire structure will fail. The life support structure is at risk of failure if any of the critical boundary safe limits are exceeded. And the magnitude of the failure will increase the longer, and more severely, any safe limit is exceeded.
    • Through the millennia the global life support structure has had parts (regions) develop to be very unlivable ‘considered to be deserted’. But the changes were almost always gradual enough, or localized, allowing life to continue to evolve and adapt to the slow changes. However, occasionally something happened that pushed things beyond a global safe boundary for life and did it so rapidly that a lot of life perished.
    • It is helpful to identify which boundaries are beyond the safe limit. But what is more important is the history and current trend regarding each critical concern. Ocean acidification looks OK at this moment (below the safe limit). But if the trend is ‘rapid recent increase likely to continue that way for a while’ then it is a potentially larger problem than a case where impacts are beyond the safe limit but are declining. And that ‘trend rate’ evaluation would clearly indicate that Climate Change is a major problem (note: in the original Planetary Boundary evaluation, done only a few years ago, Climate Change impacts were below the safe level).

    Humanity has developed, for the first time in history, to undeniably be ‘pushing things beyond global safe boundaries for life so rapidly that a lot of life has and will perish’. Many critical aspects of the planetary life support structure are being rapidly severely degraded because of ‘human development’. And many, but not all, members of the developed global leadership (the global wealthy and powerful) struggle (fail) to help stop the obvious undeniable destruction. The unhelpful ones try to:

    • maintain their status in the Status Quo (maintain popularity and profitability)
    • deny or diminish the severity of problem (promote deliberately misleading marketing to get people to misunderstand the issue)
    • stifle, threaten, or attack anyone who tries to raise awareness or improve understanding of the problem and the required corrections of the developed Status Quo.
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