The Wealth of Planets: Avoiding bankruptcy and foreclosure

A new book explains global warming is just one of ten fundamental threats we’re ignoring – but could solve.

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Out of ten "planetary boundaries"- ways in which human civilisation could undermine itself - we are already beyond the safe operating space for three of them: global warming, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss [AFP]

“The financial and environmental crises have the same roots: non-sustainable use of resources in the money economy as well as in the natural world.”
– Anders Wijkman, co-author of
Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries

In 2009, Johan Rockstrom was the lead author of a featured study published in Nature magazine, “A safe operating space for humanity“, which introduced the concept of “planetary boundaries”. It argued that global warming was only one of ten different ways in which human civilisation was potentially undermining its own foundations, destroying the balance of natural processes on which our species depends.

The study warned that crossing even one or two planetary boundaries could be “deleterious or even catastrophic”, due to triggering “non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems”. This is not just more of the same environmental damage we’ve already experienced, but damage so severe that it creates a self-reinforcing dynamic, shifting the planetary system to new conditions that are far more hostile to human civilisation. The study offered specific numerical thresholds for eight of these boundaries: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone, the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, global freshwater use, agricultural land use and biodiversity loss. Two thresholds were not yet quantifiable: chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol load. Most alarmingly, it pointed out that we are already beyond the safe operating space boundaries for three of these: global warming, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss.

To understand what this means, consider that humans lived on earth for roughly 200,000 years before the climate stabilised in the last 10,000 years, creating the conditions in which agriculture and civilisation itself could flourish in the safe operating space of relatively stable climate. It’s not that we suddenly grew smarter: we grew more fortunate. This period, known as the Holocene, is potentially coming to an end as a result of global warming, while we risk crossing multiple other planetary boundaries as well.

The UN and the turn of the millennium

Rockstrom’s study was part of a broader shift in focus and methods epitomised by two large-scale scientific enterprises sponsored by the UN since the turn of the millennium. The first, the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment Report, adopted the perspective of analysing the economic value of services that ecosystems provide, and the costs involved as they are degraded. As I reported for Random Lengths News in 2005:

Ecosystem services were broken down into four categories: provisioning services, like supplying food, water and fiber; regulatory services, that control climate, water flow and quality, air quality, pests and disease; cultural services, that supply recreational, aesthetic and spiritual/religious benefits; and supporting services, such as photosynthesis, soil formation and nutrient cycling.

Things could get much worse in the next 50 years, but a projection of four different scenarios – two of them reactive and two pro-active – also showed that “significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices can mitigate some but not all of the negative consequences”…

[The Millennium Assessment] found that 15 of 24 ecosystem services studied “are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests.” These changes are “increasing the likelihood of nonlinear changes in ecosystems (including accelerating, abrupt, and potentially irreversible changes)” such as “disease emergence, abrupt alterations in water quality, the creation of ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters, the collapse of fisheries, and shifts in regional climate.”

The relationship to Rockstrom’s study should be obvious: he focuses laser-like on the world-wide factors of eco-degradation which threaten to produce adverse non-linear changes like those just mentioned, but which threaten our very civilisation.

Climate Change: What the world has to say

A second large-scale UN-sponsored enterprise, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, is a further effort to understand economics’ dependency on the natural world, and how we ought to go about pricing priceless nature. I wrote about TEEB for Random Lengths‘ Earth Day edition in 2010, but they’ve just released a new report – Natural Capital At Risk: The 100 Top Externalities Of Business [PDF] – showing the world’s basic industries, such as agriculture, forestry, mining, fossil fuel production, etc had unpriced natural capital costs of $7.3 trillion (the equivalent of 13 percent of global economic output), and that none of the top 20 regional industrial sectors with the biggest environmental impact would be profitable if such costs were taken into account. This is yet another staggering indication of how habitually we ignore the danger we pose to ourselves as a species.

Politics and resilience

Now Rockstrom has co-authored a solution-oriented book based on that earlier analytical framework – Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries. It’s written for a wider, non-scientific audience, though not so much the broad general public as those already keyed in to public policy debates. “An abundance of scientific reports clearly point out that we are very close to a saturation point, where the biosphere cannot handle additional stress,” the book says, and it proceeds to draw on such reports, along with significant studies of how we might avoid catastrophe. The book makes a compelling case that technological solutions – such renewable energy to replace fossil fuels – are well within our capabilities. But whether economic, political and cultural obstacles can be overcome is another matter.

Rockstrom’s co-author, Anders Wijkman, is a conservative Swedish politician whose deep interest in environmental issues has caused significant strains with the leadership of two different conservative parties he’s been an elected official for. Wijkman is not just a political maverick or gadfly, however. He’s had a distinguished career outside of electoral politics, most notably almost a decade as head of the Swedish Red Cross, where he emphasised a pro-active approach of pre-emergency preparedness. Together, the two are convinced that we can meet the challenges we face if we take their magnitude and imminence seriously, and act accordingly to implement the best available pro-active strategies.

In his solo chapter, “Politics in Crisis”, Wijkman concludes with this frank advice to political parties generally: “Make a broad analysis of the world we live in and develop new policy platforms. Otherwise, new political parties will sooner or later emerge and step by step force today’s intransigent parties into the cold.”

Climate Question – Degrees of Change

The scientific centre that Rockstrom heads is called the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and its website defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt yet remain within critical thresholds”. Other compatible definitions include “the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe”, or “the ability to recover readily, as from misfortune”. The word “resilience” came up repeatedly with respect to how Bostonians and others responded to the Marathon bombing, for example. Resilience contrasts with brittleness, rigidity and fragility – all of which can coexist with narrowly-defined forms of “innovation” – as we saw with the collapse of worldwide financial networks in 2008. In contrast, a resilient system has redundancy and depth, but they serve to enable a diverse range of responses to changing circumstances. This is what characterises healthy ecosystems, and is most important in enabling them to survive periods of extreme stress.

As the Centre’s website elaborates:

Resilience is the long-term capacity of a system to deal with change and continue to develop. For an ecosystem such as a forest, this can involve dealing with storms, fires and pollution, while for a society it involves an ability to deal with political uncertainty or natural disasters in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.

Increased knowledge of how we can strengthen resilience in society and nature is becoming increasingly important in coping with the stresses caused by climate change and other environmental impacts.

Technological possibilities

Bankrupting Nature is an initial attempt to employ the planetary boundaries concept as a blueprint to guide us in that task of strengthening resilience in society and nature. It does provide a wealth of insights and inspiration that we can meet the looming threat to our own existence that we have unwittingly created for ourselves. You can get the flavour of the book from a TED talk by Rockstrom posted at the Resilience Centre website. In it, Rockstrom explains that the needed transformation, “changes, fundamentally our government and management paradigm, from our current linear, command-and-control thinking, looking at efficiencies and optimisation, towards a much more flexible, a much more adaptive approach, where we recognise that redundancy, both in social and in environmental systems is key to be able to deal with the turbulent era of global change.”

Taken in its entirety, the book makes an excellent case for just such a transformation. But the more fearlessly the authors face the challenges, and the more diligently they come up with solutions, the clearer it becomes the real problem is not technological.

Early in the book, they write:

Our focus is on cultural and lifestyle issues and the way we have organised our economy, because these are the areas where the key changes must occur in order to address the serious threats to the biosphere. Every day our production and consumption systems result in a growing impact on the environment, through pollution, by displacing and eradicating countless species and ecosystems, and by disrupting the climate balance. This endangers the very basis of humanity’s further development and prosperity.

Yet, the book itself is most persuasive not in terms of “cultural and lifestyle issues”, but in terms of technological possibilities, whether high-, low- or medium-tech. The potential for rapid development of renewable energy is a case in point. The chapter on energy cites the 2009 study Wind, Water, and Solar Power for the World, which “made the assessment that renewable energy, with emphasis on wind, solar and hydropower could completely replace fossil power within 20 years”. This would entail building nearly four million wind turbines with 5 megawatts average output each – clearly a major undertaking, the authors acknowledge, “but we must not forget that more than 70 million cars are produced annually in the world. So technically it would not be difficult to build 4 million wind turbines in twenty years.”

The logic here is impeccable. But the solution offered remains highly improbable in a world where oil and gas companies still get billions of dollars in subsidies in America alone, while the US political class discusses cutting Social Security and Medicare, and funding for alternative energy is equated with crony capitalism.

In need of a broader effort

To take another, different sort of technological approach, when it comes to agriculture and water use, the authors point to the relatively untapped potential in more efficient use of “green water”, which “consists of the rain that infiltrates soils and forms soil moisture and then flows back to the atmosphere… water that sustains all rain-fed agriculture in the world, practiced on approximately 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land”. Rockstrom himself did earlier research which showed that “for many farming systems in the world, less than 50 percent of the total available green water is used productively”. Multiple different strategies need to be integrated together, the authors argue, but the potential exists to substantially increase food production – in turn, substantially reducing hunger – even though the world population will continue to rise through 2050.

Again, what’s addressed here is an innovative, productive technological approach – even though it’s far removed from current mainstream practice. More difficult is the widespread phenomenon of growing affluence leading to rapidly rising agricultural impacts, exemplified by the booming demand for meat in China’s new middle class – a demand that will likely degrade consumer health along with the environment, since meat calories and protein require far more resources to produce than their vegetable counterparts.

That’s just one aspect of the knotty problem of how to enhance human well-being on a mass scale while diminishing negative side-effects – which is, broadly put, the problem of recreating economics top to bottom on a solid 21st century scientific footing. “Perpetual growth in the throughput of energy and raw materials on a limited planet is not possible,” Wijkman writes in his solo chapter. “That many economists cherish the idea does not make it right. In the long run, we cannot continue to deny very basic natural laws, but many policymakers still stick their heads in the sand. It is a mystery to me why we are not listening more to the natural scientists.”

In a press release for the book, he boils down the economic goal quite simply: “We need a ‘circular economy’ that decouples wealth and welfare from resource consumption, and assigns a value to natural capital, so the depreciation of the earth’s resources and the loss of biodiversity are taken into account in national as well as company budgets.” In the book, the authors note that GDP, the gross domestic product, is supplemented by NDP, the net domestic product, which “attempts to take into account the wear and tear that occurs in the physical capital”, but “there is no corresponding accounting of the deterioration of natural capital, such as farmland, tropical forests, freshwater resources, fish stocks and biological diversity”. Once such costs might have been negligible on a worldwide scale, but that time is no more.

This all makes perfect sense – at least to anyone who’s not an economist. But when it comes to economic policy-making based on this understanding, dealt with in the later chapters of the book, the gap between common sense and elite political consensus begins to widen to a Grand Canyon-sized chasm. Two examples should suffice. The first is tax reform to reduce taxes on labour and raise them on resource use. The second is to remove all environmentally harmful subsidies. Naturally, the oil companies – the richest corporations on earth – would bitterly oppose both these proposals, a political reality which the authors have no realistic proposal of how to overcome.

This is hardly a fatal flaw in the book, more an indication that scientific understanding of the problems we face and technological innovations that can help overcome them are both more advanced than our understanding of the cultural, political and economic challenges we face. If anything, this points to the need of a much broader effort than a single pair of authors or a single research centre can muster. Indeed, it might well be time for the UN itself to get involved in a third global ecosystems project, recruiting thousands of physical and social scientists, as well as policy analysts, to develop a plan of action for avoiding the the planetary bankruptcy that Rockstrom and Wijkman have both warned us against, and provided a first draft for avoiding.

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, where he’s worked since 2002. He’s also written for Publishers Weekly, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, LA Weekly and Denver Post. In 2000/2001, he was a principal editor/writer at Indymedia LA. He was a front-page blogger at Open Left from 2007 to 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg